In July of 2016, as the engine of his campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn from the party leadership purred into action, Owen Smith was interviewed by the Observer in a cafe in Pontypridd, where he’s been MP since 2010. In a moment that typified his strange and feckless campaign, a cappuccino was placed on the table in front of him and he greeted it thus: "I tell you it is the first time I have ever been given little biscuits and a posh cup in here… Seriously, I would have a mug normally."
The vignette of a former pharmaceutical lobbyist pretending he didn’t know what a cappuccino was felt, in some small way, like the heady climax of a strange political era we’ve been living through since the turn of the decade. Owen Smith wanted everyone to know he was a normal bloke, not some out of touch Islington elite or faceless Brussels bureaucrat. It was an attempt to appeal to the real people: the traditional, hard-working classes who don’t drink fancy coffees and don’t live in major cities. Real, authentic people.
It’s these people – or, rather, their construction in the imaginations of centrist politicians and journalists – that is picked apart so expertly in Joe Kennedy’s new book Authentocrats, an often humorous but always precise takedown of modern politics' obsession with authenticity. It’s his second book, following 2016’s Games Without Frontiers, an exploration of contemporary society through football.
Authentocrats tells the story of how politicians and journalists across the political centre have embraced "traditional values" in an effort to win back voters who’ve been "left behind" – pitting the "metropolitan bubble" against the "forgotten north", or "hipster Corbynistas" against the "hard-working families" with their "legitimate concerns". Authenticity has been turned into a currency, afforded more clout during an episode of Question Time than real economic and social relationships. As Joe puts it in the book, "A small business owner in Hartlepool is now seen as a more reliable measure of political disenfranchisement than someone from Peckham who works a zero-hour contract in Sports Direct." The book critiques a political culture that purports to speak for people and places, while serving only to turn them into metaphors.
I met Joe to talk about his book in a cafe across from Brighton train station. Brighton itself is a site of many of the oversimplifications typical of the Authentocrat imagination. It might be the "most hipster city in the world", yet in 2015, as many as one in three children in Brighton and Hove were living in poverty. It is a symbol of the Remainer South, but surrounding Sussex voted narrowly in favour of Brexit. Even the cafe is riddled with the sorts of contradictions left out of the metropolitan-vs-provincial understanding of Britain: we order cappuccinos that arrive in posh cups with little biscuits from a menu that also sports lurid images of grease-lacquered fry-ups. We spoke about his book and the frustrating, and often farcical, nature of keeping it real.
VICE: In broadest terms, who are the Authentocrats?
Joe Kennedy: I would say that they're people who on one hand reject populism, or their caricature of populism, and on the other hand are absolutely populist. People who are trying to leverage this idea of the forgotten white working-class in support of the maintenance of the status quo. They're trying to take the energies of this populist moment which has powered Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, the AFD in Germany, and trying to use it paradoxically to keep things as they were. On one hand, [they think] the worst person in the world is Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but also they want what he has.
Why did you choose to open on the Owen Smith cappuccino-incident, above anything else?
I feel a bit guilty whenever I think about Owen Smith, be honest, because I don't think he's fully in control of what happens to him. That said, I think that whole thing is so laughable because his pretence of being a man of the people is so transparent. The thickening of his accent whenever it's expedient. You can kind of script him ahead of what he actually says.
There seems to be a particular strain of centrist male Labour MP who likes to signal his authenticity. What were the other major calling cards?
There's two sets of things, apparently, that denote you as a real person. One set is very earthy things like football – and it has to be a particular kind of team; it can't be Man United, it’s got to be a Championship team, preferably from the former coalfields of Barnsley or Nottingham Forest. They also like curry and 1960s music.
You also have to show interest in stuff that performatively has no weight, so an interest in pop culture that is just fun. Jamie Reed, the guy who stepped down as the MP for Copeland, has got an egregious Star Wars reference in his Twitter bio. You have to kind of point out that you also like fluff. Weight and fluff come together in the dialectic of authentocracy.
Do you think authenticity has eclipsed class now as a priority? Or at least confused it?
Definitely. Since the 90s, class has increasingly been understood through consumption: what you eat, what you watch on TV. Of course there is a cultural aspect to class in various ways, but it should be second to material aspects. Now it's primary in our understanding.
There are incredibly well off people who can mark themselves out as "a prole" because they follow Liverpool home and away in Europe. If you've gone all the way to Kiev with Liverpool you have spent thousands of pounds on travelling.
I'm always mystified by how you can be working class and a multi property-owning landlord, whereas if you’re like me, you're still renting aged 37 this week, but you have a job with cultural capital, you’re somehow the effete bourgeois.
Has personal irritation driven a lot of this book?
To some extent I wish I hadn't written this book, because writing it made me feel quite ill. It’s being annoyed with the doublespeak. The perversions of language and meaning that occur within authentocracy are infuriating.
You stand there and you can just see the bullshit machine in action all the time. It’s late, late Blairism, I think: the final set of spins. And then along with that, the way the culture industry has this infatuation with realness and authenticity as well. The more authentic version of James Bond, or all British Scandi-noir dramas. It's just rubbish, it's boring. I’m frustrated by the general boringness of a culture that is trying to congratulate itself for taking things seriously all of a sudden in response to its guilt about not taking things very seriously during the 90s.
I think you can only understand authentocracy if you look at the rejection of seriousness in the 90s, whether that's on the cultural level – the obsession with the silliness and absurdity – or on the political level, saying we are beyond politics now, that we're just going to managerialism and the job of New Labour is to make sure that everybody has a nice time.
Towards the end of the book, you point to the ways in which Corbynism could be undone by Authentocracy, both by making concessions to the mythical "left behind" on issues like immigration, but also by falling into an Authentocracy of its own.
One of the impulses within Corbynism, which I don't think is great, is this ultra-materialist one which makes it all about the NHS. I think of it as Ken Loach Corbynism. It’s all about short-term solutions to redistribution. Yeah, the NHS obviously needs saving, but Corbynism should be a point of access for dealing with bigger situations which are coming. It shouldn't just be about reinstating policy of 1945, great as that was in some ways. That post-war social democracy was a leavener in Britain, but we can't think in nativist terms anymore. You have to think globally. There’s a naivety of people within Corbynism – Corbynism’s Authentocrats, if you like – who think we can have a one state solution. Globalisation is a fact which can't be reversed. We can never go back to the nation-state as the primary unit in politics.
Do you recognise a version of Authentocracy working in American politics?
I think that it probably works slightly differently in America, although in the last week we've seen a bit of a shift, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Who, as I understand it, mainstream Democrats have been saying can't really be this champion of the working class because she grew up in a house, or something. The mainstream Democrats will embrace Authentocracy. It’s the last desperate gambit of the centre-left.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.